The Buffalo Bills have played plenty of big games since they began playing football in the All American Football Conference to the AFL to now. Lest we forget, they won two straight AFL titles in 1964 and 1965; in 1966, they hosted---and lost---to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFL title game where a win would have advanced them to Super Bowl I. They played in five AFC Championship Games in 1988 and 1990-1993 and of course, four Super Bowl appearances. Those are all playoff games, but there have been many regular season games that have been pivotal as well, in fact, too many to mention here.
But, today is a special game, a very special one indeed. In a way it reminds me of Jim Kelly's first game, way back in 1986 against the New York Jets. I remember that game like it was yesterday, how revved up the city and region was for Kelly's debut.
The Bills had been down. After a brief resurgence in 1980 and 1981, when they went 11-5 and 10-6 respectively and made back-to-back playoff appearances, from 1982 through 1985, they flat out stunk. The 1985 team led by quarterbacks Vince Ferragamo, Joe Dufek and Bruce Mathison was one of the worst teams in modern times even though they were 2-14 and some teams won fewer games.
We all know the Jin Kelly saga. As much as he is endeared now, he was the scorned man, as was Ralph Wilson. Wilson and Kelly, two proud, stubborn men. Kelly, the former University of Miami star said he wouldn't play in Buffalo. Wilson, the owner didn't care. The Bills took Kelly with the 14th pick in the 1983 draft, and Kelly, true to his word, bolted for the Houston Gamblers in the USFL and in three years, put up crazy numbers in front of empty seats at the Astrodome. The league folded and the Bills still held Kelly's rights. Now, Kelly had nowhere to go (I guess he could have gone to the CFL), and Wilson had no plans of trading Kelly. Kelly, perhaps a little wiser decided to come to Buffalo, put his feelings aside and play some football.
I remember when he landed at Prior Aviation. He threw a pass that I think was caught by former Channel 7 sports reporter Bob Koshinski. There was a marching band there, and finally, three years after he was drafted, he was a Buffalo Bill.
That first game was huge. It sold out and was on local TV. That was a big deal, because as a kid, I remember listening to more home games than watching them on TV. I went to a Bills-Colts game in 1985 when Art Schilchter squared off against Dufek. Back then Rich Stadium held 80,020. My friend and I bought the cheapest tickets they sold and sat 30 rows up on the 50 yard line. The announced crowd was about 40,000 but there was probably 25,000 in the house. The fans tried doing the wave. The guy next to me had a transistor radio with Van Miller's call, and Van said the attempted wave looked like an undertone.
Kelly brought instant credibility to the struggling franchise. I was a freshman at SUNY Brockport and watched the game in the basement TV longue with six or eight other people, some Bills, but mostly Jets fans. Even the Jets fans left that game---a 28-24 loss---saying that Kelly and the Bills would be a team on the rise. A few weeks later, Marv Levy took over and throwing out the strike season of 1987, the Bills went on a roll, making the playoffs from 1988-1993; 1995-1996. In Kelly's 11 seasons with the "Buffalos," they made the playoffs eight times.
Fast forward to today and Wilson's imprints all over this game in so many ways. Wilson was from Detroit, he could have moved the Bills many times since he purchased the team back in 1960. He had no allegiance to Buffalo from a personal standpoint. He never lived in Buffalo, and to my knowledge never owned a residence in the Buffalo area. He flew in from Detroit to take care of business and then went back there. There were bigger cities that wanted an NFL team, yet Wilson kept the team in Orchard Park. Even though Wilson was an outsider, he was treated like a native.
It is also fitting that the Miami Dolphins are today's opponent. The Bills and the Dolphins have quite a history to say the least. In the 1970s, the Bills and the Dolphins played 20 times, and 20 times, the Dolphins won those games. In 1980, Roosevelt Leaks scored the winning touchdown as the Bills snapped the losing streak at Rich. I went outside my house and people were cheering. The late 1980s and 1990s saw Kelly versus Miami, Brian Cox, Shula and Levy and all those division races and playoff games. Dan Marino played in one Super Bowl, and the reason he didn't play in more was because the Buffalo Bills wouldn't let him.
Several years ago when the NFL realigned, the league wanted to move the Bills to a division with Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. It made sense. An easy drive to Cleveland and Pittsburgh, a Rust Belt Rivalry if you will. But Wilson, said no, because in his eyes, the Bills biggest rival was and is the Miami Dolphins, and because Wilson was a respected yet quiet voice, he got his wish that the Bills and Dolphins would remain in the AFC East and play each other two times each season.
This is a special game. A year ago, many Buffalo Bills fans, if you polled them, really believed that someday, the Bills would move after Wilson's death. The Wilson family never wanted to run the team, so there was real fear that this would happen. There was the Toronto experiment which some believed was a dress rehearsal for a future move to that city. The Toronto experience was not a rousing success, and honestly, to judge Toronto fans for not showing up wasn't fair. If Jacksonville played Tennessee in Buffalo, would you go? That said, the place was sterile and certainly didn't help the move to Canada.
Wilson, after a great and successful life, passed away. The team was for sale and after the smoke cleared the Pegula family has emerged as the buyer, the winner. Bills fans are in love and more importantly, relieved. Pegula has money---billions of it---and he also owns the Buffalo Sabres. More importantly, he has kids ranging in age from 13 to 34. The 34 year old will step right in and help run the team, and eventually the 13 year old will get involved. Even more important is that these kids will have kids of their own, which can make sure that the team stays in Buffalo for the next 50 or 60 years. In less than two weeks, the fans have gone from "Nervous Nellies," to relaxed and excited. Add to the fact that the team---remember them---went on the road and beat Chicago last week, the excitement today should and will be off the charts.
This is a special day for the Buffalo Bills fan. I don't live in Buffalo anymore, but my Monday's are still much better after a Sunday Bills win as goofy as that may be. Even if the win makes them 3-8, it still pumps me up. The once a week nature of the NFL is what makes it special. The Bills fans have always been passionate. The region has always had that little chip on its shoulder. There is a feeling that if a new owner wanted to move the Bills, the league would not oppose it. Wilson was an opponent of that. He wanted teams to stay in their cities, just like he wanted the Bills to stay in Buffalo. He has gotten his wish. He will be at the game today, smiling from somewhere, knowing that the team he bought for $25,000 is where it should be: Western New York